In 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear facility melted down. The incident rightfully frightened citizens and put American nuclear power on hold. Three Mile Island received intense media coverage. Meanwhile, an earlier meltdown is all but forgotten. Thirteen years earlier, the Fermi 1 plant just south of Detroit, Michigan suffered a partial meltdown. Luckily, operators managed a controlled shutdown to avoid disaster.
Construction on Fermi 1 began in 1957 off Lake Erie in Monroe County, Michigan. Dow Chemical and Detroit Edison designed the plant. A consortium operated the facility on land owned by Detroit Edison. Fermi 1 was a prototype fast breeder reactor designed to generate more fuel than it used. The companies did not design the plant to produce much power.
The prototype plant experienced a major setback on October 5, 1966. Zirconium cladding broke loose blocking the coolant from entering the reactor. As a result, the core began to meltdown. Engineers used sodium coolant at Fermi, so they could not pump water into the reactor to bring down the temperature. Apparently, sodium burns when it interacts with water. As the crisis continued, some fuel rods melted.
The Detroit area survived the potential disaster because the fuel rods stayed within their assemblies. As a result, workers shutdown without incident and maintained containment. It took nearly four years to uncover the problem, clean up the mess, replace the fuel, and restart the facility. The plant's license was not renewed in 1972. It was decommissioned in 1975 with final decommissioning scheduled for 2025. The plant currently lies dormant.
Southeast Michigan nearly suffered a nuclear meltdown in 1966. The Fermi 1 plant experienced a coolant issue that workers managed to control. They received some luck when the fuel rods did not interfere with containment. In the end, the Fermi plant's functional lifespan lasted less than two decades.